Prodigal

For a touted high school football prospect, prospective suitors will do many things to make a persuasive case. They will bring up the football program, the weight room, the academic support, the student life and the prestige of the school.

All are important, but weigh differently with different people.  Coaching staffs have to find out a way to present these elements to convince a player that he belongs there.   Videos can help as do presentations from the coaches, and the requisite visit to the campus is a must. Yet, a player won't understand how well a campus environment fits him, or how he fits it, until he actually sets foot on campus and commences life as a student.

If the fit isn't right, it might be anywhere from a semester to a year before someone realizes it and decides to move on. For Lavelle Hawkins, someone who is not accustomed to doing anything slowly on the football field, the decision did not take nearly that long.

After a year which saw him graduate from high school, begin classes at Louisiana State University, continue classes at City College of San Francisco, take 20 units of classes twice, Hawkins is now happily getting ready to bolster the California receiving corps.  The 5'11", 175 pound Stockton product had narrowed his list of colleges down to Cal and USC last fall. A good relationship with Cal head coach Jeff Tedford and proximity to his hometown tipped his decision in Cal's favor.

Hawkins, who's listed as a junior on the Cal roster, does not enter this season as the Bears' most heralded receiver recruit. Long Beach Poly's DeSean Jackson followed up a strong senior season with a monster performance in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, winning MVP honors. Jackson kept West Coast football fans on edge while making his college choice on signing day. While Jackson's decision was met with considerable fanfare, Hawkins route to Berkeley was quieter and more roundabout.

As a senior, Hawkins helped the Edison Vikings to an 11-3 record, its first playoff berth in 20 years and a spot in the Division I championship game, where they lost 14-6 to Grant High School with current Bears Worrell Williams and Syd'Quan Thompson.  A multi-dimensional weapon, Hawkins caught 55 passes for 976 yards and 13 touchdowns, ran 65 times for 697 yards and nine more touchdowns and completed 14 passes for 379 yards and three more touchdowns. On defense, he had eight intereceptions and two fumble recoveries en route to being honored by the Stockton Record as Area Player of the Year and Male Athlete of the Year.

Hawkins' ability caught the attention of coaching staffs across the country - of his final five college choices, only one of them was in California. After considering Tennessee, Oklahoma, and Cal, Hawkins narrowed his final two choices down to Miami and LSU, before choosing the Tigers.

It could easily be understood why he would want to attend LSU, which had just won a national championship and had secured the services of then-head coach Nick Saban with a contract extension.  Although the Tigers had recruited a bumper crop of receivers including five-star receivers and fellow Parade All-Americans Early Doucet and Xavier Carter, there was no reason to think that Hawkins wouldn't be able to compete for playing time.

More than a year after making the decision, when asked about why he chose LSU, Hawkins' reasons were....let's say, different.

"To be honest, I liked their colors," said Hawkins. "Plus, it was the SEC. I went out there in December and visited them and liked it a lot."

To those who've been there, Louisiana in December is a lot different than Louisiana in August and September. And for friends and family that wanted to keep watching Hawkins play, the Stockton-to-Baton Rouge trip wasn't an easy one to make.  Acknowledging that you're not in the right place is one thing, acting upon it is another, and Hawkins soon understood that LSU wasn't for him.

"After the first game, I realized I needed to be home," said Hawkins. "When I went out there I was being hard-headed. But that's something I had to find out for myself. I still follow (LSU) to see how they're doing. There were some good times there and the food was great. But I'm a Cal Bear now and there's no woulda, shoulda, coulda."

After leaving LSU, Hawkins ended up at City College of San Francisco. He became familiar with the team and coaching staff during the previous year because of a family connection.

"In high school I went to work out there, because my cousin Ruben Jackson was there," said Hawkins. "The coaches were cool so it was an easy decision to go there. At first, guys wanted to test you and there was some competitiveness. But it was all cool."

From a distance, it might have appeared as if Hawkins were adrift.  Every year, there are stories of high-profile recruits who have difficulty settling in at one school and end up going elsewhere without have a plan.  Yet headed into CCSF, Hawkins was very clear about what he wanted to do. Because LSU would not grant him a release from his letter of intent, Hawkins would have to complete his two-year degree as CCSF in order to attend a four-year school in 2005.  Off the bat, Hawkins knew that it would come down to one of two choices.

"I was going to either go to USC or Cal," said Hawkins. "I chose Cal because of Coach Tedford and because it was close to home."

There was that tiny issue of getting an A.A. in just over a year; something that was definitely not impossible, certainly not easy.

"I took some classes in high school that helped," said Hawkins. "I had six units carry over from LSU, and then I took 20 units each semester at CCSF."

After successfully managing a heavy course load for a year, Hawkins was asked if he would consider taking 20 units a semester at...

"Oh nooooooooooooo."

Hawkins joins CCSF teammates quarterback Joseph Ayoob and linebacker Desmond Bishop as part of a recruiting class that has been ranked in the top 10 nationally and has the potential to be one of the greatest recruiting classes in Cal football history.

His play caught the attention of many Cal fans during the spring showings of the 2005 recruiting video.  From the grainy footage that appeared filmed through night vision goggles to more conventional looking film - Hawkins is seen racing past defenders, hurdling over them, slaloming his way through secondaries and cutting back past them.   The longer it went, it became apparent this wasn't so much a highlight video as it was a film festival.

Perhaps the video's most outrageous moment takes place when Hawkins takes a direct snap from center and outruns the defense for a long touchdown. There was no attempt to disguise the play as a pass or a reverse - an observer would be inclined to think this was simply a case of snapping the ball to the offense's best player, telling everybody in the huddle to block somebody, and daring the defense to stop him.

Yet as flamboyant as Hawkins' running style is, he's almost sheepish describing it.

"The coach did call those plays," said Hawkins, who seems almost embarrassed when the highlight video is brought up. "I wasn't really the quarterback. I'd take the snap, people would come at me and I'd run. I did whatever the team wanted."

Thought of primarily as a wide receiver - Hawkins also has exceptional potential as a defensive back.  Last fall, CCSF played Fresno City College in a matchup of the #1 and #2 teams in the state. Hawkins had recently joined the team after leaving LSU and played most of the game in the defensive secondary.

With CCSF leading 13-3 in the 3rd quarter, Fresno had a 3rd-and-16 on the CCSF 42-yard line.  Fresno quarterback Jeff Schott attempted a pass deep down the sideline to 6'3" wide receiver DeAngelo Ramsey, when Hawkins leapt in front of him at the 4 for the interception.   Toward the end of the game, with CCSF holding on to a 26-16 lead, Fresno had the ball in CCSF territory twice but was thwarted, helped by a pass that Hawkins batted away on one possession, and a sack by Hawkins on the following possession.

Although J.D. Williams would be thrilled to work with someone of Hawkins' caliber in the secondary, don't look for the sophomore to be pushing for a change.

"I'm a wide receiver at heart," said Hawkins, who regularly attended spring practices, paying close attention the quarterbacks and receivers. "If the coaches want me to play defensive back, that's OK, I won't argue. I just want to play."

For the season, Hawkins' accomplishments were modest - 23 catches for 525 yards and four touchdowns, and a 15.0 average on punt returns.  Hawkins receiving average of 22.8 yards/catch is even more astonishing considering that he was often a safety valve while receivers Ruben Jackson, Maurice Purify and Chris Bryant were sent downfield on deeper patterns, and several of his big gains came off of screens and quick hitch plays.

This September, 20 months after having helped take Edison High to the Division I Championship game, 18 months after having picked LSU, 12 months after deciding to leave LSU, and 9 months after deciding to attend the University of California, Lavelle Hawkins will come running out of the Memorial Stadium north tunnel, completing an odyssey that takes this prodigal son back to perhaps where he belonged all along.

There won't be any talk from Hawkins about this being another game. For the people that followed his exploits at Edison, for those who weren't always going to be able to trek to Louisiana, and knew that CCSF was an avenue to a greater destination, September 3rd will be an arrival.

"Being close to home, there might be 300 people coming out from Edison for that game,"  said the soft-spoken Hawkins. "People have been following Edison High football for a long time but we weren't always great. We started doing a lot better my last couple of years and that brought a lot of people out."

One major challenge for fans is figuring out quickly how to associate a new player with his uniform number. Hawkins will be easy to remember. If you need a reminder, maybe the video of him single-handedly taking on a defense for a touchdown or the 25 touchdowns he figured in during his senior year will do the trick. Or you can add his high school number (#1) to his junior college number (#6). Then again, you can just look at the end zone.

He'll be wearing #7.


©Copyright 2005, TheBearInsider.com and Scout.com. All rights reserved.

If you haven't done so already, subscribe to The Bear Insider so you can participate in this online community and get access to the members-only content from the nationwide Insiders network.

Bear Insider staff writers visit the Insider discussion board regularly, and are available to discuss questions you may have about this article and Cal Athletics.